What do you see when you hear the word “entrepreneur”? A start-up CEO lounging on a bean bag in his Silicon Valley office? A Youtuber with millions of followers vlogging his last trip? What about Gloria, a small rural farmer in Zuuberkom, South Africa? They are all entrepreneurs, in their own way!
The word “entrepreneur” comes from French and literally means “to undertake”, to do something, to take action, create… Countless people living in rural areas, sometimes in extreme hardship, are coming up with innovative ideas and implementing new business concepts, to be able to make a living. They are true entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who, just like any other, need funding and opportunities. And while there is a lot of hype in recent years about entrepreneurship, it is often supported by the simplistic idea that “if you want, you can, you just have to work hard”. For rural entrepreneurs, working hard is just not enough.
Angels Resource Centers provides training and mentoring to rural entrepreneurs in South Africa, to give them the opportunities, skills, and confidence to make sure that, indeed, “they can”. We interviewed Lizelle Coombs, its founder, ands discussed entrepreneurship, rural South Africa, and how it’s time for rural talents to shine.
Lizelle and the Angels Resource Centre staff
Can you describe your role at Angels Resource Centres – what is your position, how long have you been with the organization and what are your responsibilities?
I am Lizelle, the founder of Angels Resource Centres and have been managing it, alongside my amazing team of Angels, since its creation in 2006. My main responsibilities are fundraising, designing our community development programs to ensure they match community needs, and I also lead our monitoring, evaluation and impact studies for all our programs.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you come from, your background and how you became involved with rural entrepreneurship?
I am a Social Anthropologist and have always loved working in rural communities. I find the different cultural experiences fascinating and exciting. I used to have a corporate job, but after a while, I started feeling purposeless. I knew I had always wanted to help people to fulfill their dreams and have a better life. One day, I quit my job and found my true purpose with Angels Resource Centres; I help people through teaching and promoting business skills. By doing that, I feel that we are giving people the tools to create their own solutions, become employers and providers in their communities. I recently did a TEDx talk telling my story of how I started Angels: “The day I traded my heels for boots”.
How does Angels Resource Centres operate? How many volunteers do you work with?
We are completely reliant on funds from private companies. In South Africa we try and tap into the Enterprise Development Funds which large companies are legally required to spend as part of our country’s BBB-EE (Broad based Black Economic Empowerment) law. It can be compared to a mandatory CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). We have several business trainings and mentorship programs tailored to rural entrepreneurs, a youth academy, and a network of micro-incubators all over the country.
Our motto is: We want to IGNITE our youth through exciting initiatives, INTEGRATE all members of communities through inclusive activities and IMPACT entire communities by creating opportunities and jobs.
The nature of our programs makes it difficult to onboard volunteers to work with us physically in the field. Our Friends of Angels program calls for volunteers with business mentoring skills and experience who can support entrepreneurs virtually – which will be for entrepreneurs not necessarily in rural areas (they do not have access to technology or they are illiterate) – more focused on grassroots businesses that need support and guidance. It can be seen as a “lifeline” center for entrepreneurs.
Why is it important to support and develop rural entrepreneurs? What are some of the challenges faced by this kind of entrepreneurs?
Rural entrepreneurs are often neglected when there are support programs announced. It is mostly because they rarely qualify for these kinds of programs, or that funders find the extreme conditions they live and work in, difficult to comprehend and do not understand how their funds will make a difference. Rural entrepreneurs are often lacking basic resources such as water and electricity, let alone access to any technology! This makes it hard places to work in, and not everyone finds the rural challenge as interesting and exciting as the Angels do!
I firmly believe that in South Africa, the solution to many of our economic problems in rural areas lies within the rural entrepreneurs themselves. Individuals in rural areas that are already entrepreneurial (often out of necessity) can be upskilled and provided with tools, equipment, basic business skills, and more importantly, constant emotional support and business mentoring while they grow. The potential there is infinite! Our history has damaged our communities on many levels and there is a tremendous lack of self-confidence amongst rural entrepreneurs. With very little investment, equipped entrepreneurs can support their families and whole communities. They can become employers, suppliers to each other for products and services. No one would have to go hungry and all services (and money) would be retained in that community, bringing wellbeing to all. Rural entrepreneurship can be the motor of change and sustainability in those areas.
How has the Coronavirus crisis affected your work? What are the challenges it creates in the immediate, mid-term and long-term periods?
The massive and desperate need in the rural communities of our country is even more overwhelming. We receive daily messages from entrepreneurs in our care circles, in need of support. It is devastating to see all the hard work they put to build their informal businesses, now going to waste as the (necessary) lockdown started tearing away their hope, crushing all motivation to continue.
The situation has really reached desperate levels, especially in the Northern Cape Province, where our most vulnerable entrepreneurs reside. The informal farmers in our groups, already living in survivalist circumstances prior to the pandemic, now face a daily struggle to ensure food security for their families and communities, and are fighting for the survival of their small food gardens and what little livestock they manage to keep.
Trainees from one of Angels’ programs
What consequences of this crisis are you most worried about?
The massive unemployment spike post-Covid-19 will be incredibly damaging in helping more rural entrepreneurs to become sustainable. We already find clients diverting project funds elsewhere and our Angel Wings (infrastructure) is taking strain. We need to remain strong as an organization to be able to continue our work in the communities. We trust that sponsors and program funders will return some of their focus (and funds!) to the importance of creating solutions through entrepreneurship in the rural communities.
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